by Karen Bennett
Billy Higgins: Time On His HandsCopyright © 1990, 1998 Karen Bennett
"Excuse me," says an elder friend who is a veritable institution on the New York jazz scene, "but I'm gonna move up front so I can watch Billy's hands."
The scenario repeats itself, with variations, in the succeeding nights during Higgins's two-week date at Sweet Basil with Cedar Walton and Ron Carter: a doorman from another club picks up his beer and wanders to the alcove behind the drum kit where he stands motionless for the rest of the set, peering over Billy's shoulder. Drummer Carl Allen, standing behind me, lets out a low moan during Walton's solo. "Man," he says, "Higgins swings so hard you can feel his pulse even when he's not playin'."
This is the paradox of Billy Higgins. His sound is so unmistakable it is eponymous; yet restraint, self-effacement are his power tools. Focusing on Higgins in a trio or quartet can be a vertiginous excursion into the dynamics of figure and ground. An example: In 1982, Walton and Carter recorded "My Funny Valentine" as a duo. [Heart and Soul, Timeless Records.] The arrangement employed the bare bones of a bass line that is almost sinister in character, stealthy, modestly funky. Listening to the tune live, with Higgins on drums, one hears its apotheosis: the bass is featured, and Carter is on it - walking, stalking, quoting ("Rock-A-Bye Baby", among other things); unabashedly seducing the imagined Valentine, who at this point is hapless prey. It's a case of whodunit, and the devastation is in large part wrought by the spectral presence of Higgins, who pops out like thunder at the bridge, just long and hard enough to remind us of the volatility of the situation, then recedes to an echo of Carter's steady rainfall.
Higgins's playing tends to evoke larger worlds, juxtapositions and comparisons that quickly evolve into superlatives. He is possibly the most melodic drummer ever to grace the instrument. His legendary cymbal work is so luminous it summons images of natural phenomena - whitecaps, moonlight on the floor of an empty room. Or it is bell-like, reverential. His brushes are like a conversation held in whispers. The rhythm of his solos is so compelling it can make you unwittingly alter your breathing in tempo. On one occasion, I spontaneously remarked, " Every time I hear you play, I feel blessed." Tapping on his knee in the back seat of Walton's car, Higgins looked over and smiled. "It's the music," he demurred. When one gets to know Billy Higgins, these seemingly simple statements take on the profundity of a Zen koan. They are delivered by one who now possesses, as the Bible says, the peace that surpasseth all understanding, but they have evolved through the changes as Higgins has. He started playing drums when he was five years old, he was 53 at the time of this story's original publication; Billy will be 62 in October of 1998. In his own words, he has "been in some strange circumstances." He works almost continually, and says he learns something every time he's on the bandstand. After all these years and an almost inconceivable number of trips to the stand, I wondered if there was a point at which he felt he had "arrived" at his sound.
"No, no, no. Because the sound keeps changing. Once you 'arrive,' it's all over. You've got to keep evolving from day one till the time you leave the planet. It's a process. It's a journey, not a destination."
What Higgins did arrive at, early on, was the conviction that he wanted to play the drums. "I'd seen some guys play when I was very little," he says, " and when I saw them play, I knew that was what I wanted to do, without a doubt."
Johnny Kirkwood, a drummer who worked with Louis Jordan and Dinah Washington, among others, and who lived near Higgins in Los Angeles, helped Billy realize his dream. "At that time," Higgins recalls, "jazz was the standard music in the neighborhood. Johnny used to take me around to hear all the bands. With young kids, there's always got to be somebody to show you the way, to encourage you. And he also encouraged me in how to live life. I grew up without a father, so he was kind of like a father figure."
Higgins's mother was also unfailingly supportive. "She would say that If I'm going to play these things, I better learn how to really play them! But I didn't have any reservations; I didn't have anything else that really made my heart feel good."
Performing, practicing, and listening alone became a mainstay in Higgins's self-education, wherein he set about what he continually refers to as 'training your ear.' "When I used to listen to records," he says, "I used to listen to Charlie Parker and Miles and Dizzy, and what they were playing would fascinate me, so I would try to learn that, and the more I would do that, the more it would start me to thinking musically."
Higgins's aim was to "implant the music in my head," and apply the melodic situations to the drums. Often, he would play in duo with a saxophonist, and his description of the experience gives some insight into his rarefied modus operandi. "You have to play two roles, in order to make the sax player be able to hear harmonically. In order to get the whole picture of the music, there's an imaginary bass player and an imaginary piano player playing in your head. You have to play a certain something to give the saxophone player the illusion that something else is going on." Rather than playing to accompany the imaginary instruments, Higgins says, "I would play as if I were those instruments."
Higgins, who kept playing throughout his school years, met up with Don Cherry and an alto saxophonist named George Newman at Jacob Reese High School. With Newman doubling on piano and New York bassist PeeWee Williams in tow, they formed a band called the Jazz Messiahs and traveled up and down the West Coast. In the early 50's, saxophonist James Clay came on the scene from Texas, and introduced Billy to Ornette Coleman. When drummer Ed Blackwell returned to his native New Orleans for a time, Higgins began to play with Ornette.
Higgins acknowledges this as a turning point, but downplays the flap that ensued over Ornette's music. "That was how I got to New York," he says. "Ornette had a lot of original music, and you couldn't do nothin' in Los Angeles, so Percy Heath, John Lewis and Nesuhi Ertegun got us into the Five Spot. Certain people dug the music, certain people didn't dig it, but I wasn't concerned with that then, because I was trying to learn what was going on," he recalls. "What people said or thought never bothered me, because they didn't have anything to do with what I was doing."
Higgins personally had no difficulty with Coleman's music, because "Ornette was beautiful and he was sincere. If you go into a situation where somebody says, 'I can do this,' and you have the attitude that they can't do it, it's not gonna happen. But if you think, 'I'll see what I can do without it,' and try to integrate the drums into the music, that's a different story. See, playing the drums is one thing, but playing music is a totally different trip."
Higgins remembers those who were receptive: "Trane used to come around all the time. He used to come and play, and be inquisitive about what was going on, because his mind was open. And Miles, same way. Miles used to come in and play with us, Charlie Haden, Roy Haynes, he was there almost all the time. And right now," Higgins adds, "Ornette is doing the same thing he was doing then: writing music and playing it."
Higgins then worked with Thelonius Monk for about five months, but had to return to California, which, after a few years, he found insufferable. When Coltrane came through, Higgins left with him. Since he didn't have a cabaret card, he worked in a variety of speakeasys in New York, and during the '60's and '70s played with a host of people, including Trane, Sonny Rollins and Lee Morgan. It was the era Higgins remembers as "the whole Blue Note period, with such a wealth of music in New York."
Higgins also worked steadily with Cedar Walton, an association which continues to this day. "Cedar and I had a quartet, and we used to use different saxophone players; first it was Hank Mobley, then Clifford Jordan, then George Coleman, then Bob Berg." Much of the time Sam Jones played bass, and he proved to be an inspiration for Billy. "I learned so much from him and the way he conducted himself," Billy says. "He would never drink when he played. After he got off the bandstand, he might have a beer, and you know how long he lasted. Every night he gave 100 per cent. And you can name all these bands that have been successful, like Cannonball's band, the Oscar Peterson trio, everybody that he's every been with, something happened. He's a very important musician, and a special human being at the same time."
There came another turning point for Billy in 1977, when he became a Muslim. Higgins, who encapsulates his past life-style in the phrase "strung out for so long," was living in Brooklyn when Jackie McLean and some other friends introduced him to Islam. "I needed something very strong to get out of the situation I was in. It helped me straighten the whole thing out. If you do it like it's supposed to be done, it's on the money. And it's structural. Without structure, it's over. You're just like paper in the wind."
Higgins made the pilgrimage to Mecca last summer, and his experience there deepened his devotion, which he describes as "one of the most fulfilling things that can happen to the human spirit. I wouldn't give it up for anything in the world."
Higgins' technical mastery is redoubtable, his knowledge of the instrument surpassed only by his respect for it. He plays the guitar "to keep colors in my mind. I picked the guitar because it's small and you can carry it around with you, and also it's in tune. I'm trying to train myself so I can tune the guitar up naturally, without hitting the notes." He is doing this to enhance his already prodigious skills, "so that when something happens in the music, I instinctively go somewhere with sound by understanding the harmonic structure. See, if you're playing the drums, you have to find some stuff that fits everything. The whole thing about the conception of any music that you hear is the rhythm that the drummer plays. If he plays a rock rhythm, it's gonna be a rock song; if he plays a Latin rhythm, it's gonna be a Latin song; he sets that mode. The drums are the navigator."
The navigator's role is one that Higgins approaches with humility. "If somebody writes a song, and it's the first time they've heard it played, then you have the privilege to make it real. Like a mother has a child, I mean that's heavy."
While discoursing on the multitude of considerations the drummer makes - the presence of amplifiers, the use of different riffs, when to breathe, when not to play, when to play - Higgins piques the listener's interest to a point of no return. But with the facility of a seasoned pilot, he steers the craft back on course, if not back to earth. "I'll tell you what," he smiled at one point during the discussion, "I can simplify this. When you hear any amount of people doing anything together, it's not them doing it. They're being played instead of playing. Now if you grasp what I'm saying, then you have to look and see where the music's coming from. Because you can ask anybody who plays music, while they're playing, what are they thinking about? And when they're playing their best stuff, and they're playing in unity, they're sitting there. The spirit of the music, when it comes out, is not coming from you, it's going through you."
Later that evening, Higgins was on the bandstand with the Timeless All Stars, radiating the almost beatific joy that has merited him the nickname 'Smilin' Billy.' He plays as if the drums are revealing themselves to him for the first time, a disposition all the more miraculous because he exhibits it each time he's at the drum kit. After the set ended, Higgins paused on his way to the dressing room, looked over, and tapped his chest as if in oblation. Then he stopped by to ask his questions: "Alright, alright, alright?"
Originally published in The Wire (London), Issue 72, February 1990
Karen Bennett is a freelance journalist and educator living in New York city. She was born and raised in Philadelphia, where she worked as a general assignment reporter for the Montgomery Newspapers chain, and later freelanced for such publications as Philadelphia Magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer, which published her first jazz-related piece on Sun Ra in its Sunday Magazine. A published poet and contributing editor with Musician magazine, Ms. Bennett has also written for The Wire, Live!, Jazziz and Tower Pulse! magazines. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.